Jean Hélion

Ile de France


In Tate Modern

Jean Hélion 1904–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1454 × 2000 mm
frame: 1530 × 2070 × 58 mm
Purchased 1965


Ile de France is one of Jean Hélion’s most important abstract paintings and, at two metres across, it was clearly envisaged as a substantial piece. Typical of his work in the mid-1930s is the disposition of variously sized and coloured planes across a relatively neutral background. For the large scale of Ile de France, as distinct from the small Abstract Composition (T07921), Hélion introduced an additional blue background plane that occupies part of the upper half of the composition. The effect is to reinforce the sense of implied space, within which the apparently overlapping planes mark out a rhythm. Four of the floating elements enhance this further through a modulated shading that suggests that they are convex forms within this shallow space. This recurrent device related to Hélion’s interest in sculptural reliefs on ancient architecture (Jean Hélion, Lettres d’Amérique: Correspondance avec Raymond Queneau 1934-1967, Paris 1996, p.81). Closely comparable conjunctions of elements to those in Ile de France are found in various preparatory ink and wash drawings of 1933-5, notable one of those known as Large Volumes, 1935 (Musée National d’art moderne, Paris, reproduced in Hélion: Dessins 1930-1978, exhibition catalogue, Musée National d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris 1979, p.19). When asked about the title many years later, he explained that Ile de France (referring to the region around Paris) was so named by a friend, the collector Pierre Bruguière, ‘because it could not have been painted elsewhere’ (letter to Tate, 29 October 1965).

In the 1930s, Hélion was one of the most prominent abstract artists in Paris. This reputation came about partly through the originality and fertility of his paintings and ideas, and partly through the energy with which he promoted non-figurative art in exhibitions and publications. He helped to found the international group Abstraction-Création in 1931 with Jean Arp (1886-1966), Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) and others, but withdrew in 1934 objecting to the sacrifice in new membership of quality to quantity. As well as his wide circle of associates in Paris, he had a number of important contacts in Scandinavia, in the United States (with Alexander Calder) and in Britain (especially with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth). His encouragement is widely credited as the impetus behind Myfamwy Evans founding Axis (1935-7), the first British periodical devoted to abstract art. It was through Axis that Hélion showed Ile de France, and other works, in the pioneering exhibition Abstract and Concrete organised by Nicolete Gray in 1936. There it appeared alongside Mondrian’s Composition B with Red (T07560), Calder’s T with Swallow (T01142), Hepworth’s Three Forms (T00696) and Nicholson’s white reliefs among others. The artistic radicalism of the exhibition ensured some critical interest but financial failure and many works were returned to the artists. Hélion showed Ile de France in Paris in 1937 before storing with the writer Raymond Queneau through the war years.

An inveterate writer, Hélion recorded the progress of many of his works in a studio notebook. The passage written about Ile de France in 1935, reveals his persistent private doubts about the relation between abstract art and reality even as he worked on such a major canvas:

The oppositions are developing.

The colours are becoming refined, the space more supple, but the more I advance the more evident is the attraction of nature. The space is provisionally, miraculously, filled with light but the volumes want to become complete: objects, bodies. There will soon be the inevitable odd bit of nature, and the entry into a new naturalistic phase. (Journal d’un peintre, 1992, p.56)

While he made no direct allusion to the outside world in his paintings of the mid-1930s, such notebook passages reveal the underpinnings of his abstraction. Thus, although the formal and colour balances – or ‘oppositions’ - were crucial, he saw the planes of Ile de France as volumes occupying a lit space. Thirty years later, after a long period of working from the figure (see Nude with Loaves, 1952, T05497), he identified the abstraction from nature quite explicitly: ‘Ile de France comprises, on the left, an upright abstract figure from my year [19]34, opposed and composed to and with this [diagram] broad figure with “gros volumes” [Large Volumes]’ (letter to Tate, 29 October 1965).

Further reading:
Jean Hélion, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, Liverpool 1990.
Jean Hélion, Journal d’un peintre I: Carnets 1929-1962, Paris 1992.
Jean Hélion, exhibition catalogue, Musée National d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2004.

Matthew Gale
March 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Hélion was one of the most prominent abstract artists in Paris in the 1930s. He later returned to a more representational style. Ile de France is mostly composed of flattened planes of colour but the forms in the foreground appear solid and three-dimensional. At the time, Hélion reflected: ‘The more I advance the more evident is the attraction of nature…the volumes want to become complete: objects, bodies.’

Gallery label, January 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Jean Hélion born 1904 [- 1987]

T00766 Ile de France 1935

Inscribed 'Jean Hélion 1935 | TOP HAUT' on stretcher and 'Hélion | Paris 35' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 57 1/4 x 78 3/4 (145.5 x 200)
Purchased from the Leicester Galleries (Grant-in-Aid) 1965
Prov: With Louis Carré, Paris (purchased from the artist 1962); with Leicester Galleries, London, 1965
Exh: Benno, Fernandez, Gonzalez, Hélion, Kandinsky, Laurens, Uger, Lipchitz, Magnelli, Picasso: Oeuvres Récentes, Galerie Castelucho-Diana, Paris, June 1935 (works not listed, repr.); Abstract and Concrete, St Giles, Oxford, February 1936 (10) as 'Painting, 1935'; School of Architecture, Liverpool, March 1936 (no catalogue); Lefevre Gallery, London, April 1936 (9 or 13, both entitled 'Painting, 1935'); Cambridge Arts Club, May-June 1936 (no catalogue); Origines et Développement de l'Art International Indépendant, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, July-October 1937 (166) as 'Composition'; Jean Hélion: Peintures 1929-1939, Galerie Louis Carré, Paris, June-July 1962 (9, repr. in colour); Jean Hélion, Leicester Galleries, London, June 1965 (7, repr.); Hélion: Cent Tableaux 1928-1970, Grand Palais, Paris, December 1970-February 1971 (works not numbered, repr.)
Lit: 'Visual Music by Rebel Artists' in Daily Sketch, 12 May 1936, p.10 repr.; P.G. Bruguière, Jean Hélion (Paris 1970), p.41
Repr: Decoration, No.24 (N.S.), May 1937, p.39 as 'Painting 1935'; Art International, VI, 25 September 1962, p.65 in colour (on its side); Architectural Review, CXXXVIII, 1965, p.201

Hélion has written (letter of 29 October 1965) that there were three pictures the same size, done or begun in 1935. One reproduced in Axis, No.4, 1935, p.6 was formerly in the Walter P. Chrysler collection. 'The second is this one of yours, that the collector and writer Pierre Bruguière named Ile de France because it could not have been painted elsewhere, he said. The third belongs to Peggy Guggenheim, and was exhibited at the Tate with her collection (the Gros Volumes of Cahiers d'Art 1951). I had hoped the three pictures could be exhibited together. They never were ...

'I can give you these details because painting these "Abstractions" was a very slow process, and I kept a diary of their development and what happened to them.

'When in 1943 I started again producing figures, I could not keep that as faithfully because the various studies after nature, and studies from these studies, were so absorbing and took more and more of my time and energy...'

[As for the development of his style in the 1930s] 'I went from simple to complex, from elementary to complete, from flat to shaded, from shaded to "modele". But at every stage kept precise elements of the previous stage.

'Ile de France comprises on the left an upright abstract figure from my year 34 opposed and composed to and with this [diagram] broad figure with "gros volumes"...

'Trying to achieve something as complete as possible, fully unrepresentative, until it created a figure so capable of figuration that the world fell into it as through an open window, and I could not resist anymore its appeal.'

The three large paintings of 1935 have many similarities in their forms and compositions, and could almost be regarded as variations on a theme. P.G. Bruguière states that 'Ile de France' was the first of the three, but the artist confirmed on 8 July 1973 that it was definitely the second.

When he went to America in 1936 to stay for a few years, he lent it to Raymond Queneau, the writer, who kept it until his definitive return in 1946.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.359-60, reproduced p.359

You might like